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Dear James Taranto

James Taranto, in his Wall Street Journal "Best of the Web" feature, is taunting me for not replying to his tweet quoting with approval an African American minister (one who supports Sen. Scott Brown's re-election) making what Taranto obviously believes to be a devastating critique of Brown's opponent, Elizabeth Warren. To wit:

“Affirmative action—that issue becomes important because it points to who you are,” added the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, executive director of the TenPoint Coalition, who pointed to an assertion that she is 1/32 Cherokee. “I’m thinking to myself, if I was 1/32 white, or of European descent, would I be able to put on an application that I was white? And if you look at a picture of me, you see what I’m talking about."

For a long time I resisted joining Twitter because I was afraid I'd be called on to make arguments on complex or sensitive topics in 140 characters. This is an excellent example of what I had in mind. Perhaps a better writer than I could explain, as a white man addressing a black man, the historic relationship between racial prejudice and racial identity, and do it without suggesting in any way that this history could possibly be news to said black man, and achieve all this in 140 characters. I cannot. 

Within the comparatively roomy confines of TNR's Plank blog, lets give it a whirl.

Dear Rev. Jeffrey Brown (and James Taranto, whom I've never met, but is I think white),

Your comment to the Boston Globe makes it sound as though you are ignorant of  the "one-drop rule." That possibility is, I think remote, but let me explain it to Taranto's readers and my own. The one-drop rule was adopted in a number of states after the Civil War as an instrument of racial segregation. It said that if a person had as much as one drop of Negro blood in his or her veins, then that person was a Negro (then the polite term for African American). The Jim Crow era is long gone, and state legislatures have long since stopped deliberately separating blacks from whites to discourage intermarriage. But oppression of any group tends to create a sense of shared identity within that group that lingers over time. Racial identity is to some extent the product of racial prejudice. For African Americans, one legacy of the one-drop rule (and of various other forms of historic racial oppression, including slavery) is that if you're 1/32 white, or 1/16 white, or 1/8 white, or even 1/4 white, you won't likely consider yourself white, and others won't likely consider you white either unless you're sufficiently light-skinned to "pass" and keep your black ancestry secret. Even if you're half-white you aren't likely to think of yourself as white or be thought white by others. You're likely to be thought of as black. (Ask President Obama.)

In other words, the example you posit sounds ridiculous not because of math but because of social attitudes and a lot of American history. 

Elizabeth Warren claims to be Native American. One source estimates she is in fact 1/32 Native American. The one-drop rule was never applied as rigorously to Native Americans as it was to blacks, and prejudice against those with Native American blood was never as virulent as it was against those with African American blood. Still, Warren (who before she entered the Senate race had no idea precisely how much Native American blood coursed through her veins) self-identified as Native American because she was partly Native American. Her own mother was deemed a sufficiently unsuitable bride for her father (based on her sufficiently evident Native American ancestry) that the couple had to elope. That sort of family story tends to foster a sense of ethnic identity. So if Warren told Harvard and Penn that she was Native American, I don't see what the big deal is.


Tim Noah (one-half Jewish on my father's side, which would have been Jewish enough to send me to Auschwitz)